Facts on Gerbils and Hamsters
Because of their size, these tiny natives of the Middle East, Africa, India, and Asia are misperceived as being “low maintenance” animal companions. Employees are rarely trained to meet the animals’ needs or properly sex them, so unknowing customers may take on more than they bargained for. Although gerbils and hamsters both come from the rodent family and essentially eat the same foods, their social needs are entirely different.
How to Spot Neglect
During the day, expect to see healthy hamsters sleeping; healthy gerbils may or may not be running around. A listless gerbil could be ill or depressed, especially if alone. A head tilt or lack of balance; scabs on ears, face or feet; sneezing; runny nose; watery eyes; and diarrhea are all signs of a sick animal who needs immediate attention and who could have “wet tail,” which is the slang term for a particular life-threatening disease caused by a dirty cage or stress.
Noted for their large cheek pouches and short stubby tails, hamsters were found in Syria in 1839 and have been held captive as pets or test subjects since the 1940s.(1) In their natural habitat, they prefer to be alone and are nocturnal so bonding with humans can be a challenge since they do not like to be awakened during the day. But evenings and early mornings are a good time to try to make friends. A 2-foot-square wire-mesh cage with a solid base would be the minimum size for a home for one hamster, but keeping more than one hamster in a space that size will likely lead to a deadly fight. Those colorful plastic cages may be enticing, but they are difficult to clean, and hamsters may chew their way out. You’ll need a water bottle, nonwood-based bedding such as straw or shredded white paper, chew toys, and an exercise wheel. Wooden ladders and toilet paper rolls also make great toys. A hamster’s diet should consist of a variety of greens, fruits and seeds, some of which are available in packages formulated for hamsters or birds. Their teeth never stop growing, so it is imperative that these animals be provided with hard, digestible items such as dog biscuits and clean tree branches. Hamsters live to be between 2 and 4 years old.
There are about 90 species of gerbils, but the ones sold in stores are most likely to be Mongolian gerbils.(2) These cousins of the hamster do not like to be alone and live in families of up to 20 members in their natural habitat. If kept in a solitary environment, a captive gerbil will become depressed. If you’re planning to adopt gerbils, two males or two females from the same family will bond together. Like hamsters, gerbils are mostly nocturnal but take a series of naps during the day, so it is not uncommon to see them active in daylight hours. Their dietary and housing needs are the same as hamsters—although you should buy a solid exercise wheel for gerbils since their long tails can become entangled in wire wheels. Neither hamsters nor gerbils should be allowed to become too cold or they will go into hibernation. Gerbils live for about five years.
Like any rodent, hamsters and gerbils can carry rabies and other diseases and, if released into the wild, pose a threat to established ecosystems. Hawaii does not even allow the animals to be kept as companions.(3) If you have questions about the regulations in your area, contact your local Department of Agriculture.
Yes, hamsters and gerbils are really cute. But they require proper housing, food, temperature, and exercise and prefer to be alone or with their own kind. They can bite and carry diseases. They do not make good “starter pets” for young children. If, after carefully considering these factors, you are sure that you want to bring these delicate creatures into your home, avoid pet shops and adopt from a shelter or rescue agency.
1) Otto von Frisch, Hamsters (New York: Barron’s, 1990) 51-52.
2) National Gerbil Society, “Gerbil Species Info,” 2009.
3) State of Hawaii, Department of Agriculture, Animal Guidelines for Importation to Hawaii, 2009.